The stock Android browser seen on phones like the Nexus One and the Nexus S is a pretty decent, capable web browser. But it’s not available on every Android phone; manufacturers will often swap this for their own versions or add custom features and designs which change and alter its functions.
In addition, it’s also not available to download and install directly from the Android Market, which is a bit of a kicker if you’re after some vanilla Android action, but you don’t want or can’t get hold of a Nexus device.
We’ve instead looked at some of the best alternatives going that are available to download from the Android Market. We’ve tested these browsers out on a Nexus One (2.3.4) and an HTC Sensation (2.3.3).
Skyfire Web Browser
If you’ve got a low-end Android phone that can’t run Adobe Flash Player but you want to watch Flash videos on the web, then you should make Skyfire a priority download.
As well as being a pretty good web browser in its own right, the main ace up Skyfire’s sleeve is the fact that it lets you play a number of Flash videos on the web even if your phone lacks the hardware requirements for Flash Player.
Note that we say Flash videos, so not Flash games or similar kinds of Flash content. We had problems when trying to play some clips from Newgrounds as well.
Additionally, you’ll need to fork out around £1.79 for the Video License Key as well to enable this, though the standard Skyfire Web Browser 4.0 is free to download.
Flash support for lower-end phones aside, Skyfire supports up to eight windows, and a tap to zoom that centres on text, reformatting columns to fit screen width.
Pinch to zoom is also supported, but this doesn’t auto-format text as you go; this is more useful for zooming in on images. For zooming in on text you’ll have to stick to the tap to zoom function.
Vital stats: Skyfire Web Browser 4.0
File size: 2.38MB – 800KB after install to SD
Flash/plug-ins: Yes (with purchase of Video License Key)
Max. No of Windows/Tabs: 8
Dolphin HD is one of the best Android browsers out there. It’s fast, allows you to import bookmarks from previously used Android browsers, and has an option to switch between browsing desktop (www.website) and mobile versions (m.website) versions of sites.
You get proper, tabbed browsing with actual tabs (i.e. not a sub-menu with a carousel of windows) and the ability to add gesture-activated shortcuts to functions like refresh, back and forwards and so on.
We were also able to comfortably browse with ten tabs open at once, with the browser only warning us that performance might suffer if we opened more.
There’s also a pretty big library of add-ons available, such as ‘Bookmarks to SD’ (saves bookmarks to the SD card) and Dolphin Screen Cut, which allows you to take screenshots of web pages, crop and save them.
Dolphin Browser HD manages to do all of this while looking good as well; it boasts a fetching slate grey and green colour scheme that looks great on Android phones with large, high-resolution displays.
There’s a tool bar which stays out of side until you perform a gentle swipe motion towards the left and side of the screen, with other settings accessed by a quick tap of the Menu button.
Pinch and tap to zoom is supported, with text formatting accordingly. While this makes zooming in on text nice and easy, it can occasionally make zooming in on pictures troublesome, especially if they’re next to a big block of text. Shame there’s no option to toggle this really; our only quibble with Dolphin HD.
Vital stats: Dolphin Browser HD
File size: 4.60MB – 1.64MB after install to SD
Flash: Yes (Requires Flash Player 10.1/Android 2.2+)
Max. No of Windows/Tabs: In theory, unlimited but it seems that 10 is the optimum number.
Firefox for Android is something we’ve been looking forwards to for a while. It’s crammed with some pretty nifty features which take their cues from the full desktop version which we know and love.
For starters there’s plenty of add-ons to play around with, support for 14 languages (plus an auto-detect option) and the ability to enable/disable cookies and clear private data in the Preferences menu. You can also import tabs from the Firefox desktop browser as well, which is a really handy feature.
The layout is pretty easy on the eyes too, a sharp, minimalist scheme with toolbars discreetly tucked away at the sides – just nudge left and right and you’ll see them.
One thing that we like it how that Firefox remembers tabs you’ve opened from previous sessions, so if you stop browsing the web for whatever reason, you can pick up where you left off in most occasions – we’ve found that Firefox saves tabs when the phone’s been off for a while, but only sometimes. Shame that this isn’t a more stable or permanent feature – we hope that it gets included properly in later versions.
Firefox takes what seems like an ice age to load up compared to the other browsers here. Ok, it’s not that long, but it’s about 3 to 4 seconds on high-end phones like the Samsung Galaxy S2 and the HTC Sensation.
Space-wise it’s a real hog as well – at 14.48MB not including additional data, maybe they should’ve called it Firepig (*rimshot*). There’s not yet any support for Flash either, so if this is a dealbreaker, we suggest you look elsewhere.
Vital stats: Firefox
File size: 14.48MB – 96.00MB after install to SD
Max. No of Windows/Tabs: Unknown, we were able to get 16 tabs running before things started becoming so slow as to be inoperable; we recommend using 8 to 10 tabs max.
Opera prides itself on speed and that’s something that Opera Mobile has in spades; it’s certainly no slouch in terms of page loading times. We like the neat Speed Dial feature as well, that allows you to pin nine big shortcuts to the homescreen.
The general layout of the main settings menu, accessed by tapping the big red ‘O’ bottom right, makes it dead easy to add bookmarks, search for a certain word on a web page as well as check and erase your history. A tab of your phone’s Menu button will also pull the address bar down from its hiding place; it’s otherwise tucked away whenever you land on a page to give you more viewing room.
Both pinch and tap to zoom is supported, with text formatting enabled for this. As with Dolphin HD, this can sometimes make zooming into pictures on news articles tricky, but generally it’s useful for when you’re trying to get up close to read something.
In the settings you can select by how much the tap to zoom feature brings you up close, from a 100 per cent zoom to a Wayne’s World-style extreme close up of 300 per cent.
We also liked that, when you’re zoomed in on anything, a simple tab of your Android phone’s ‘Back’ button will zoom you back out so that everything fits on the screen, rather than jumping you back a page.
Aside from the occasionally scrappy zoom function, we also found that Opera Mobile 11 didn’t
want to play ball with Flash Player either. Again, this may or may not be a big deal but if it is, you might want to use something else.
Like Firefox for Android, Opera Mobile 11 is pretty space hungry. Something worth considering if your Android phone is low on memory.
Vital stats: Opera Mobile 11
File size: 21.34MB – 1.16MB after install to SD
Max. No of Windows/Tabs: Theoretically unlimited; we stopped at 20, after which things became a bit sluggish.